The UK is to gain its first lithium mine in Cornwall after a British startup agreed a deal with a French mining company that could supply much of the country’s need for the crucial electric car battery mineral.
British Lithium has agreed to start a joint venture with Paris-listed Imerys that aims to extract 20,000 tonnes of lithium ore, the companies said on Thursday.
The project is expected to employ 300 people and would produce enough lithium for 500,000 electric cars per year by the end of the decade. If it proceeds, it would require £575m in spending, according to a person close to the project.
Lithium ions are a vital ingredient in the current generation of batteries for portable devices ranging from mobile phones to electric toothbrushes. But vastly more lithium will be needed for electric cars as countries around the world phase out internal combustion engines.
The agreement with Imerys, which has a market value of €3bn (£2.6bn) and traces its mining history back to 1880, is a significant milestone in the race to build a viable UK lithium industry.
The deal contrasts with the struggles of another startup, Cornish Lithium, which said in its annual accounts that there would be material uncertainty over its future if it did not receive £10m in bridge funding by July to buy it time for its next fundraising round.
Imerys has had a significant presence in Cornwall for decades mining china clay for ceramics. Previous mining efforts have overlooked lithium, however, which was mainly used to treat mental illness before the lithium ion battery was invented in the 1980s.
The UK government is hoping to spur the creation of an almost self-sufficient British battery supply chain to maintain jobs in the car industry, although only one large-scale battery plant, Chinese-owned Envision in Sunderland, is under construction in the country.
Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, said the deal “will strengthen our domestic supply of critical minerals, which is vitally important as we seek to grow the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry and help create the jobs of the future”.
Cornish mines will be central to the hopes for domestic lithium production, and British Lithium has received funding from the government’s Automotive Transformation Fund. The joint venture partners said the mine could meet roughly two-thirds of Britain’s estimated battery demand by 2030, when all cars sold in the UK must be capable of zero-emissions driving.
Imerys, which is also starting a lithium mine in France, will hold 80% of the joint venture, bringing its land and mineral holdings, while British Lithium will retain 20%, reflecting its work on lithium processing and a pilot plant near St Austell. Imerys said the UK lithium deposit comprised 161m tonnes, enough to sustain mining there for 30 years.